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"Training" - What does this word mean to you?

“Training.” “Training.” What does the word “training” mean to you?

Too often in the busy life of [INSERT YEAR HERE] we are consumed by tasks of the day that put pressure on us as chief officers, training officers, company officers, and even peers, to give less time and credence to our daily, weekly, and monthly training.  Hurrying the training process to allow time for meal preparation, inspections, incident response, returning home to family, or other reasons often shortcuts the time necessary for a complete drill.

Putting on a “complete” training production must have as high a priority as getting the training complete.

It is too often considered adequate to conduct “training” in a tabletop classroom environment, or just stand around the apparatus bay and play Pass the Adapter.  This is shortly followed by the question, “Are you guys comfortable with that?  Any questions?” No one has a choice but to nod their head, or be singled out.  But when you put that theory of “training” to a performance test, you will find that it is absolutely inadequate.

Consider these factors when reviewing “previously covered” skills.

  • It is likely that not everyone in the group has participated in the position they are currently riding in, which may change their part in the overall evolution.  When you expect it all to go smoothly on the actual fire scene, you may have a group of firefighters that are masters at everything but what they are being asked to do today.  
  • In the absence of true experience, or a set of experiences, we tend to think in images or short video clips (especially men, they say), of how we imagine a situation will evolve in the future.  But we each have our own picture(s).  Every firefighter will have a different picture in their head of the same evolution, on a different hypothetical fire scene, until you create the vision. 
  • Do you really know the experience level of each person in your company of this task, with this rig, with these tools, in these locations?  If you don’t, then don’t you have a responsibility to drill right here and right now to protect the public, and to proclaim you are truly as good at this stuff as you often do?
  • Often times when you train “hands-on” with the equipment you find broken parts that require repairs, or performance issues that require some type work-around to make them function.  For example, you might find some hose for a blitz line that does not pay off the apparatus correctly without taking a half-step to the left and holding your head just right. If this was a crosslay, we would already know this because it comes off much more frequently.  On a truck company, it might be a “trick” to start up the generator, or switch from “Outrigger” to “Ladder” power.  Any of these things can seriously hamper your performance on the scene and damage your “street cred”.  Catching these things in a non-emergency environment and taking the necessary actions will save you headaches later.
  • Does your training session apply in the real world?  Or, are you just assuming, wishing, and hoping?  You have to apply the tools you have to the problem(s) you have in your area, with the adaptations that you have to make to prove these steps will actually have the outcome that you expect.  Things as simple as a thread difference between you and the neighboring company, or a fence located between you and the FD sprinkler connection on the old hotel, or weeds and saplings grown up around your rural water supply point can absolutely ruin your day.  Your crew(s) can do it in helmets and gloves, but how about in full turnouts with SCBA on their back?  The only way to prove these things is to try them and make sure they work.
  • Psychomotor skills require maintenance, down to the smallest task.  The mission-relative skill level needed on the fireground requires putting multiple skills together with the added requirement to differentiate, judge, decide, and perform, while working with other crew members and interfacing with other companies under the pressure of time.  Anything less will not suffice.  When the chips are down, you fall back on your training.  If there is little or no real hands-on training to base it on, then you are in trouble.

Training/Experience Levels: Most often there are several experience levels on each crew.  The company officer, the senior firefighter, the two-year veteran, and the new firefighter who may have practiced this evolution once in the academy.  In a volunteer environment, it may be a larger group of variable crew members, but all the same relative training and experience levels.  Do the drill so you can spot the weak link in your chain and fix it by correcting and repeating.

Setting the Scene:  Visualization is a powerful tool.  You likely have a vision, or even an on-scene experience in your head that will make a good starting point for your crew(s).  Share it at the start.  It becomes not only the backdrop for the training session, but also helps answer the question, “Why are we doing this?”  It will help provide a vision in the firefighters’ heads on which to base the evolution forever more, until they have a personal experience to relate it to.

Apparatus and Equipment:  Although we try to standardize our equipment and locations of equipment on the apparatus, no two rigs will be the same.  Each (good) crew will try to optimize their apparatus for best performance and convenience – making things work.  Personnel should be exposed all of the equipment and riding positions they will be expected to perform in.  And just because someone is covering for someone just for a day doesn’t mean they won’t be expected to perform.  Let them know expectations, equipment locations, nuances, and take the time to do a dry run.  You will be enhancing their experience and what they will carry back to their station/shift as well.

Problems and Solutions to Performance: Letting your crew members participate in the solutions to issues with equipment or human performance will provide them with the confidence, experience, knowledge, and skills they need when the chips are down.  Personnel may (will) grumble when you first start requiring them to do these things.  But they will quickly see the benefit and will likely begin enjoying the challenge of improving their own performance.  Ignore the grumbles.  Ride it out and focus on the goal – improved company performance.

Expectations: Letting your company officers and/or crew members know what you expect for performance is key.  This sets an objective from which to evaluate whether they are competent, skilled, and ready. Or, more importantly, not ready and requiring more work.  Make sure that your expectations are realistic with the staffing and training levels that you have on any given day.  Consistent performance on your part will build credibility and respect amongst your subordinates and peers.  They will come to know what to expect on a day in and day out basis.

Training: Repeated correct procedure meeting a predicted performance outcome.

Whenever we accept less than correct performance, we perpetuate errors. All mistakes are eliminated. Then we do it again until performance meets the objective.

Don’t tell me you can do it. Show me. When you do, then I will climb down off your back, go back in my office, and leave you alone.

- Dan Miller

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